I have very few memories of being read to as an infant, but it definitely happened. I do remember, aged six or seven, begging my mother to abandon The Hobbit on account of its being so tedious, which she kindly did. And she must have read me Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I know that I knew them; only I don’t remember it. (There are exceptions.)
Children love repetition, the same stories told over and over again with the same inflection. Every night somewhere a father is reprimanded by his son because he isn’t doing the voices the way Mummy does them. Well, Mummy’s gone and you’ll just have to deal with it, he resists the urge to reply. And get used to not seeing Uncle Nigel again while you’re at it, he’s no longer welcome under this roof.
It’s important to read to your child, but by the same token it’s quite important to have some wine in the evening, and for that purpose the story tape was invented. The stories I remember best from childhood are the ones I listened to on cassette as I went to sleep, night after night. Alan Bennett’s Winnie-the-Pooh when I was younger, but particularly George’s Marvellous Medicine read by Richard Griffiths and The BFG read by Amanda Root and Jeremy Bulloch. If I read the stories now, I still hear the cadences of their voices in my head.
I made a few story tapes of my own. The first consisted of me reading out Peanuts comic strips. It must have been an odd thing to listen to without the context of the pictures. I remember reciting one strip in which Lucy puts on Charlie Brown’s T-shirt and cruelly mocks him: ‘Nobody likes me! Everybody hates me! Poor, poor me!’ I think I did it because I wanted to be able to listen to it in the car, not being able to read Peanuts while travelling on account of getting sick. Necessity is the mother of invention.
When I was six I graduated to proper stories.
Laura’s baby brother George was four weeks old when it happened.
Laura, who was seven, had very much wanted a brother or sister for a long time. It would be so nice to have someone to play with, she thought. But when George was born, she wasn’t so sure.
That’s the opening of George Speaks by Dick King-Smith, and this is me reading it.
‘… when George was born, she wasn’t so sure.’ I’d like to claim I had an innate gift for storytelling, but surely I’m parroting the way I’d heard someone else read it. I’m not fluent throughout the recording. Words I struggled with: developed, knowledge, bodily, Guinness Book of Records.
More than anything, I suspect, I liked being a presenter. While other boys were dreaming of being lorry drivers or ballet dancers, I wanted to be a DJ. Not when I was six, but the stirrings were clearly there. The end of the story:
I was fortunate that my parents provided me with a second brother shortly after my eighth birthday. I’d been too young to read to the first one, but the second was much better timed. At the age of two or three, he was old enough to understand stories but too young to be able to escape me effectively, so I had a captive audience.
I would have been about eleven when I made a tape of stories for him, read by me and underscored by appropriate classical music. The music for Quentin Blake’s Patrick, which is about a violinist, was the opening movement of Kabalevsky’s violin concerto. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ravel piano music; Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad (there’s a book crying out for a queer analysis, but that’s a post for another day), Holst St Paul’s Suite. It was a labour of love, I suppose, but it was also a project, which made it fun. I timed myself reading the stories before I recorded them, so that I could identify movements of an appropriate length to use as backing music.
When he was a bit older, I read him Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected as bedtime stories. I remember ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’ and ‘Galloping Foxley’. They took longer than your standard children’s book, but I didn’t have the patience to split them into separate evenings, so if we started one we persevered to the bitter end. Tom would have been about ten, tired and invariably falling asleep, so I had to increase my reading speed and become extra animated in my characterisations to make sure he didn’t drift off before the twist at the end.
I got out of the habit of reading aloud after that. There’s not much point in doing it if you don’t have someone to do it to. (That rule may apply to other things as well.) I did recently rediscover this recording of me reading, at sixteen, a bit of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, I think because I had to return it to the library and wanted a record of a few pages I’d enjoyed.
I could have made a photocopy, it occurs to me now, but I was probably in love with my own voice. It’s a crime I never went into radio, this narcissism is wasted in the library.
Tags: A.A. Milne, Arnold Lobel, Cassettes, Children's Books, Dick King-Smith, Eric Carle, Frog and Toad, George Speaks, Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin, Peanuts, Quentin Blake, Reading, Roald Dahl, Stories, Tales of the Unexpected, Tapes, The Very Hungry Caterpillar